As the Holy See is an active participant in international diplomacy, it is only fitting at the outset of this web site, to offer the visitor some brief reflections on the Holy See’s diplomacy, with particular emphasis on its representation at the United Nations.
Since the fourth century, and well before the constitution of the Papal States, the Apostolic See has sent and received diplomatic missions. On 11 February 1929 the Holy See and Italy resolved the "Questione Romana" following the cessation of the Papal States by signing the Lateran Treaty. By means of this Treaty, Vatican City State came into existence. Article 12 of the Treaty notes that diplomatic relations with the Holy See are governed by the rules of International Law. Years later, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961), convened for the purpose of codifying diplomatic law, went even further by formally recognizing the practice accepted by any receiving State regarding the precedence of the representative of the Holy See within the Diplomatic Corps (Art. 16, §3).
Vatican City is the physical or territorial base of the Holy See, almost a pedestal upon which is posed a much larger and unique independent and sovereign authority/rule: that of the Holy See. The State of Vatican City itself also possesses a personality under international law and, as such, enters into international agreements. However, it is the Holy See which internationally represents Vatican City State. In fact, when the Holy See enters into agreements for Vatican City State, it uses the formula: "acting on behalf and in the interest of the State of Vatican City. " In October 1957, in order to avoid uncertainty in its relations with the United Nations, it was affirmed that relations are established between the United Nations and the Holy See. And it is the Holy See which is represented by the Delegations accredited by the Secretariat of State to international organizations.
In the Listing of Country Names, published annually by the United Nations, a note is added to the Holy See's entry, stating that - in United Nations documents - the term "Holy See" is to be used except in texts concerning the International Telecommunications Union and the Universal Postal Union, where the term "Vatican City State" is to be used. States, then, do not entertain diplomatic relations with Vatican City State, but with the Holy See.
The term "Holy See" refers to the supreme authority of the Church, that is the Pope as Bishop of Rome and head of the college of Bishops. It is the central government of the Roman Catholic Church. As such, the Holy See is an institution which, under international law and in practice, has a legal personality that allows it to enter into treaties as the juridical equal of a State and to send and receive diplomatic representatives. As noted above, it is the "Holy See" that is present at United Nations Headquarters in New York and at UN centers abroad, as well as at other international organizations such as the European Community , the Organization of American States, the African Unity, etc. Currently, the Holy See maintains full diplomatic relations with one hundred seventy-seven (177) countries out of the one hundred ninety-three (193) member countries of the UN.
A question often asked is: "Why does the Holy See take such an active part in the international forum? And why do so many countries seek official contacts with the Holy See?" Political support or material aid they will certainly not expect. What they do seek is what the Holy See, by its very nature and tradition, can offer: orientation and spiritual inspiration that should animate the life of nations and their mutual relationships.
The Holy See enjoys by its own choice the status of Permanent Observer at the United Nations, rather than of a full Member. This is due primarily to the desire of the Holy See to maintain absolute neutrality in specific political problems.
The representatives of the Holy See at the United Nations and most of its agencies are Observers and participate in their prospective activities all the same. When the United Nations organizes world conferences on matters of universal interest, the invitation is sent to all States or States Members of the United Nations and States Members of U.N. agencies, and therefore, also to the Holy See.